Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Monday, May 14, 2018

Selling Fabric: Making a Fortune

Dry goods shop in the 1860s

In 1846 a directory of Philadelphia's wealthy citizens listed Jane Lang as worth $50,000. "An industrious, persevering lady, who has made a fortune in the retail dry goods business; having been established for a series of years, in north Eighth street, and keeping always a choice and well selected stock of fancy and staple articles."

Jane Lang never married. Her tombstone indicates she lived from 1789 to 1867 into her late 70s. She was in her early forties when she was listed as wealthy.

Her marker in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery
 includes three other women, perhaps a sister and two nieces.

Looking towards 5th Street on Chestnut when the Langs kept dry good stores.
Library Company of Philadelphia
Philadelphia's large shopping district included Chestnut and Market Streets.

The city's commercial directories list Jane Lang's business from 1839 until after the Civil War. Her dry goods stores were located at various spots,  35, 37 & 41 N 8th and 733 Filbert Street. At one point she lived at 37 N 8th in 1839, probably above the shop.

North side of Chestnut Street.

733 Filbert Street about 1960 from the Library of Congress

Dry goods seem to have been a family business. George S. Lang also owned a business in the same building. He is probably Jane's brother, both children of John Lang, who was a clerk in the United States Bank, family history tell us.

George Shortread Lang (1799-1877) was an "engraver of considerable reputation; he afterwards went into the dry goods business on Eighth Street, from which he retired about ten years ago," according to his 1877 obituary.

Lang's engraving of Washington after a Sully painting is his most famous work.

Album quilt dated 1841, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 
Bequest of Natalie K. Rowland, 1941

Is he the same George S. Lang who signed this album quilt in 
the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?

We can wonder where all those chintz squares cut exactly alike in
the alternate blocks came from.

In 1864 both George and Jane Lang paid income tax to support
 Union war efforts. Each paid over $8,000,
 higher than most of the Philadelphians listed.

George's son James Traquair Lang (1858-1920) went into the family dry goods business after leaving Swarthmore College in the late 1870s. He became a lawyer after his father died and that seems to have been the end of the Lang's retailing businesses.

I can find very little about Jane Lang's personal life. Leaving no children means no descendants to find you in their genealogy. Being a successful woman business owner means you are ignored in much of the commerce boosting publications of the time---unless of course you are singled out as an oddity. "Woman Earns Money!"

Mrs. Treen's card for an end-of-the-century Philadelphia shop

But Jane was not an an oddity. Running a dry goods store specializing in fabrics was a common occupation for women.

Mrs. J. Benson
Fancy Dry Goods, Freeport, Illinois

Mrs. S.J. Thompson, Marengo, Iowa
Most of the trade cards for woman-owned dry goods stores are
from the end of the 19th century when color lithography was new.

Except for the remarkable early version below.

Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mrs. Holt commissioned William Hogarth to make her
a trade card about 1710. Her London fabric shop sold silks, damasks
and Italian wines.

Portrait in Black
 Philadelphia Museum of Art 

We can follow the Langs into the 20th century. George's best known descendant was his granddaughter artist Annie Traquair Lang (1885-1918) who died at 33 in the 1918 influenza epidemic. She was quite close to William Merritt Chase who painted the above portrait in 1911

Annie Lang is getting her just due these days:

See Jane's tombstone here:

And do note that the chintz in the Philadelphia album quilt is the same as one the Boyle sisters used in Petersburg, Virginia. See the last post.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link to the story of Annie Lang. I'm so glad to read her work is being re-attributed. It is so fresh and bursting with life.